As I, a bedraggled looking old white man
ran my errands
in a predominantly black part of town.
I saw two people,
an older black man in a nice suit
and a plainly dressed black woman
standing next to
the tract rack that read
“What the Bible Really Says”.
I thought of my friend,
a black minister
putting on her shirt and collar,
the belt of truth
and the breastplate of righteousness
and pausing to think
of the martyrs
past and present.
“What the Bible Really Says”
I thought about how God loves me
more than I can understand
How God loves this couple
more than I can understand.
I thought of the commandment
Love your neighbor as yourself,
no matter what their skin color
no matter how different they are from you.
So I looked around
to make sure there wasn’t a pickup truck
with a Confederate flag
and I walked over to them,
shook their hands,
thanked them for bearing witness,
and told them what they already knew.
God loves them, loves all of us,
more than we can understand.
It is late in the evening, and I am bone tired. This has been my third evening out late. Last night, while I was at Church for prayer and a vestry meeting, nine of my brothers and sisters were killed in a church in South Carolina. When I learned about the shooting, I wept and prayed.
It was a busy day for me at work today, as the health center I worked at held its tenth annual Weitzman Symposium. During brief breaks, I found moments to glance and the news and offer up more prayers.
In the evening, I went to the commencement of the 2015 class of Health Leadership Fellows from the CT Health Foundation. This is a program aimed at address racial and ethnic health disparities. Some of my closest friends from the fellowship were not there and I wondered if they were at prayer vigils.
Now, I’m finally home, and trying to wrap my head around what has happened. I read stories about people trying to avoid talking about racism in the shooting by a white supremacist of nine brothers and sisters at a church. They prefer to call it an attack on Christianity. They are half right. The White Supremacist movement is an attack on Christianity.
I’ve been struck by the reactions to Rachel Dolezal I’m coming across online. Just a few of them include things like
I think she is a narcissistic asshole.
She is a liar, a fraud.
She is raising important issues about the definition of race.
She is racing important issues about identity
She is the result of a messed up childhood.
I remember years ago when I worked for a large international bank. I hired a management consultant to help navigate the tricky waters. In one meeting, she suggested being aware of how people react to you, is, at least in part, a result of who they are, instead of who I am.
“Imagine yourself surrounded by a big silver ball”, she suggested. “What is coming at you is often a reflection of the others. Just let it reflect back.”
So, I thought about Rachel Dolezal. Is she a giant Rorschach test? Are the people calling her a “narcissistic asshole” really making a comment about themselves? What about those calling her a liar or fraud?
To me, I like exploring issues around identity or the definition of race and I see that aspect of her. I don’t tend to think of my childhood as being as messed up as it seems hers was, but I ran into my share of dysfunction during my childhood.
As I try to make sense of all of this, let me offer this poem:
“You’re not really black.
Your biological father was white.
You haven’t suffered like black people have.”
She put down her copy
of the National Committee of Negro Churchmen’s
“Black Power Statement”
“My Father is Black”, she replied
“His Son suffered more than any of us can imagine
so that we could be brothers and sisters.”
For the past few days, I’ve been very focused on the story of Rachel Dolezal, the woman in Washington who has passed for a black woman for many years. You can see this in my recent blog posts. Why are we, as a country, so interested in this? Some suggest that it is because she lied. However, politicians lie all the time. So much so that there is the old joke:
How do you know if a politician is lying?
His lips are moving.
So, I don’t buy that it is because she is lying. Some of this may be because it is manufactured by conservative bloggers, who seem to dislike anyone who works for civil rights. Conservative blogs appear to be really enjoying this. Some of this may be because of issues of cultural appropriation. Although, when you look at it, it appears as if her she has appropriated much less and is much more friendly to the culture she is adopting from than so much cultural appropriation we see today.
For me, perhaps the biggest issue is one of identity. How do we identify ourselves? Black? White? Male? Female? Straight? Gay? There are many labels we can use on ourselves. There are many labels we can use on others and others can use on us. Yet these labels may not always feel right. We may feel that our real gender is different than our biological gender. We may feel that our sexual orientation is different from what is dominant in the culture. Perhaps, we may feel that our race or ethnicity is different from the race or ethnicity we were born into.
As an aside, it is curious to think about how social media is feeding this. As I write this, my youngest daughter says, “Can you guess what decade I belong in?” She had just completed one of those many quizzes that suggest our identity might be different from how we were born. Social media is telling us about the fluidity of identity.
Add to this, advertising. If we want an identity that will be accepted by others, all we have to do is buy the right products to look darker, lighter, have straighter or curlier hair, wear the right clothes, etc.
Recently, I’ve had some experiences that have gotten me thinking about my identity. Who am I, really? What do I desire? How does this relate to how people see me? How does this relate to how God sees me? How does what I desire relate to what God desires for me?
In one book I’m currently reading, “The Wounding and Healing of Desire” has a great line, “It is the wisdom of Christianity to understand that we are so wounded we do not know who we are.”
Now some people will suggest that at least we know who someone’s parents are. To go back to Rachel Dolezal, her biological parents are both white and say she is white. Yet this comes back to another idea from Christianity.
In Mark 3:33-35 Jesus says, ""Who are my mother and my brothers?" And looking at those who sat around him, he said, "Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.""
I would imagine that for her, and for many of us, doing the will of God means, at least in part, fighting for civil rights. Who is Rachel's father? Whoever fights for civil rights. Yes, Rachel perhaps has many black fathers.
Here, I will go to another verse. In 1 Corinthians 9:22 Paul says, “To the weak I became weak in order to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some of them.”
So, by becoming black, Rachel is standing in the tradition of the Apostle Paul.
Then, there is the artist angle. Rachel received her Masters of Fine Arts from Howard University as a white woman married to a black man. One aspect of art is to get people to look at the world around them in a different way. As a piece of performance art, intentional or unintentional, Rachel has excelled in this, propelling the discussion about the social construction of race into the limelight. This is an area I’m especially hopeful about. By getting more people to think about racial identity, she may do more than all the handwringing Facebook posts about police brutality.
This gets to why what she has done is so radical. It joins with a great Christian and artistic tradition of challenging the way we see the world, in the way we understand our identity, and ultimately, in the way we live.
Perhaps it comes from a position of white privilege. Perhaps it comes my interest in post structural thought, but I’m fascinated, even optimistic, and not offended by Rachel Dolezal saying that she considers herself black. I’ve been having lots of discussions about this topic, intermingled with discussions about police brutality, on Facebook, and I want to explore these a little more deeply here.
One friend wrote, “We must acknowledge the issues of taking on someone else's race is deeply offensive to some people, and those feelings are valid, especially with the social inequalities that still exist across ethnic and skin color lines.”
This was in a discussion about comparing Rachel Dolezal taking on blackness, with Bruce Jenner taking on femaleness. I acknowledge that some people can be deeply offended by others taking on their race, or gender, and that these feelings are valid. However, I don’t feel any sense of ownership of my race, gender, or culture. Again, this may come from my place of white privilege.
To me, the discussion about the nature of our racial constructs is important and an area where I am most optimistic. What is it that makes someone ‘black’? Is it how you consider yourself? Rachel says she considers herself black. Is it how others consider yourself? I don’t know the details, but it seems like many people considered her black, at least until her estranged parents spoke up. Does it have something to do with a legal definition of being black?
If we go back to famous law cases, we have Plessy v. Feguson which found that if you were one eighth black, you were still black. There were also the cases around the Naturalization Act of 1906 requiring people to be ‘white’ to be eligible for naturalization. This excluded people from Asia and India. Even Rachel’s critics note that she has “traces of Native American ancestry” and isn’t purely white.
My mind goes back to the ‘one-drop’ rule, the idea that having one drop of black blood in you, of having one ancestor from Africa makes you black. If you look at early human migrations, it seems like we all have ancestors from Africa.
Then, there is the famous scene from Show Boat. Steve swallows blood from his wife’s hand. His wife, a mulatto, has been passing as white. The sheriff is coming to arrest him for being a white man, married to a black woman. Yet now, he has more than a drop of black blood in him and dodges the charges.
Does Rachel have ‘black blood’? Perhaps from her ex-husband, who is African American, their son, or her adopted black brother. Is blackness based on experiences instead of ancestry? Like her experiences as a graduate student at Howard University or working for civil rights?
Is blackness something that can be adopted? Appropriated? Is appropriation good or bad?
This brings me to a second issue. We tend to look at things in a binary manner, black and white, as it were. Good or bad, male or female, straight or gay, black or white. Yet reality is much more nuanced. Myers Briggs tests don’t say that we are introverted or extroverted, they say how introverted and how extroverted we are. It is a continuum. Many suggest that the same applies to sexual orientation, and clearly when you consider people of mixed race, there is a continuum there, not to mention the continuum of how dark or light skinned you are.
Perhaps, by getting people to understand that race is a social construct based on many variables, including family history, skin color, shared experiences, we can change the construct, we can get more people to embrace their commonality with others with different skin colors. Perhaps we can bring equity to issues around health, around policing, and around so many other factors that confer privileges on people with lighter colored skin and present challenges to people with darker colored skin.